Jillian Tamaki has been pretty steadily making a name for herself in the comics world over the past decade, with comics and illustrations in the New Yorker and the New York Times and with the books Skim and This One Summer, which she illustrated while her cousin Mariko Tamiki handled writing duties. Skim has been nominated for and won many awards, and is widely considered to be one of the best young adult graphic novels to come out in years. This One Summer has also been critically acclaimed and Tamaki is widely seen as one of the best illustrators in North America. In both writing and illustrating this new book, and in doing both masterfully, she is now poised to take her place as one of the best and most important graphic novelists of the modern age.
Back when I first started this column, one of the comics that I knew I had to cover was SuperMutant Magic Academy. It had a unique look and art that made it seem like nothing I had ever seen before. The writing was funny and weird and sometimes astoundingly absurd, but always truthful and touching. Even though these characters were werefoxes or witches or looked like aliens or had psychic powers, they seemed like teenagers that I might have known when I was in school. When I first wrote about the comic, I said “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a simple black and white webcomic that has had the kind of effect on me that SuperMutant Magic Academy has.” Now I can confidently say that I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a graphic novel that has had the kind of effect on me that SuperMutant Magic Academy has.
This book is largely made up of comics that we’ve seen on the webcomic, with some new strips that bring the Academy even more to life, all culminating in a story about prom that will leave you feeling like the book couldn’t have ended any other way. We get to see Everlasting Boy, Trevor, Frances, Trixie, Gemma and of course Wendy and Marsha, as well as the rest of the cast. Tamaki told me she wanted to use this book as a way to create a “satisfying and new… ending of the book and ‘series'” and that she “felt like some of the loose narrative arcs should be addressed.” She does all of that, and more, in spades.
Like we saw in the webcomics, this series does a great job of showing just how weird being a teenager is by taking everything one step, or in some cases ten steps, further. Tamaki said that she wanted to write about a high school full of mutants and monsters because the “juxtaposition of the everyday/mundane/real/emotional with the surreal/supernatural is funny” to her and that she knows she’s walking on well-trodden ground.
It’s definitely not a new idea. It’s actually not even an interesting idea. Which is why I did it… not to attempt to reinvent, just because I thought it was kind of cheeky to explore a concept that’s kind of past its expiration date… I am more interested in life’s minutiae.
It’s on her ability to capture that minutiae that Tamaki is building this next part of her career, and it is a strong foundation. Just a few pages in and you’re hooked on these characters. You desperately want to know more about them, but it’s not their powers or mutations that you’re so drawn in by, although Tamaki has come up with some very creative and unique ones, it’s the way they all seem like people you went to high school with, or people you were friends with, or the person that you are. By setting her characters in a world where they have to deal with things like psychic powers, immortality and transfiguration, and then by caring more about how they feel about prom, or pimples or sticking it to the man (who in this case, is their teachers and parents, not supervillains), and by doing all of this with a distinctly grounded and unique voice, Tamaki is redefining what a comic about mutants can be, and what a comic about high school can be.
Another great thing about this book is that even the “popular” kids in this book refuse to become the archetypes they might have in another work. Instead of having jocks and preps who go to wild parties and are constantly dating each other and talking about how these are the greatest years of their lives, they talk about existentialism, they attempt to celebrate beauty and love but end up causing panic and multiple injuries and they realize that they’re gay after reading Oscar Wilde. And then we have all the outsiders. We get to see the D&D kids, the weird artsy kids, the girls who will never be a part of the popular crowd and the kids who act out not ever really knowing why. Tamaki was able to draw on her own high school experiences to make these characters ring even more true. “I have never attended any graduation ceremony. I was a self-appointed outcast,” she said, “[High School] felt simultaneously very important and totally useless. I wanted ‘real life’ to start.”
This book didn’t just bring a tear to my eye, it straight up made me bawl. Several times. Especially when it was fleshing out the story of Wendy and Marsha’s friendship that we started seeing develop in the original webcomic. Wendy is a beautiful, talented and popular fox girl and Marsha is her cynical outsider of a best friend. Marsha’s also harboring a secret crush on Wendy. Tamaki says that wasn’t always the plan, though. “The first comic where she blurts out ‘I’m in love with you’ was maybe her 3rd appearance or something,” she told me, “it was completely a case of the character kind of asserting herself. And I don’t even believe authors when they say ‘I’m just listening to the characters, they write themselves,’ etc.” I for one, am abundantly happy that she decided to ignore her beliefs about writers and characters this one time and let Marsha become the terrific lesbian character that she did.
Wendy and Marsha’s friendship makes for some truly remarkable storytelling. Tamaki’s able to create a comic strip where the two girls are talking about how society treats beautiful people that ends, ostensibly, in a joke about an ice cream cone, that not only makes you laugh out loud, but makes you wonder why you would ever want to read a comic not written by Jillian Tamaki. There’s another comic where Marsha and Wendy are walking and Wendy takes pictures and talks about capturing beauty that might be one of my favorite depictions of secret love ever. Then we get to the big moment: Marsha’s coming out to her best friend/secret love. This coming out storyline was, in my opinion, a perfect sequence of comics. There’s not a single panel, not a single piece of dialogue or part of an illustration that I would change. It has so much emotion and energy built into it’s drawings that it seemed like it was coming to life in front of my eyes. It has the kind of writing that’s used as an example in books about how to write comics.
The book is also one of the funniest I’ve read in a long time. Few people in comics can balance comedy and tragedy the way Tamaki is able to in SuperMutant Magic Academy. She’s able to really successfully do sight gags, physical humor, absurdest humor, character work and new twists on classic jokes. Sometimes you’ll be laughing because you’ve never seen something so strange and out-there. Other times you’ll be laughing because the comic takes you right back to a moment in your life when you went through the same exact thing and now, seeing it in a new light and with some separation from it, you realize that it was actually pretty dang funny.
I’m really in love with the new ending that Tamaki’s come up with just for this book. She ends with a more than 40-page narrative about the Academy’s prom and what our favorite characters did on that night, something that’s never been done with these characters before, and it’s just as incredible as you’d imagine. SuperMutant Magic Academy doesn’t end in some great, monumental occasion — or actually, maybe it does. What makes it truly great is that it’s so simple and in the end, it’s just another moment in these kids’ young lives. Prom isn’t the greatest night of their young lives where they all finally kiss the loves of their lives. It isn’t where they finally find their place in the world. It doesn’t build up to an epic musical number or freeze frame. But it’s still great. When you’re in high school, an event like prom can seem like the culmination of everything in your world (and in SuperMutant Magic Academy‘s case, that may be more literal than it is for a lot of people), but really, it’s not the end of the world. Life goes on. And it does so beautifully.
When it comes down to it, this is one of the best books, not just best graphic novels, but one of the best books of any kind to come out in a long time. It should cement Jillian Tamaki’s place in history. She should be remembered, celebrated and taught about for decades and decades to come. There’s a question people sometimes ask writers: “what’s one piece of writing you wish you did.” My new answer is SuperMutant Magic Academy. While Tamaki is mainly known for her illustrations so far in her career, and they’re terrific here, her writing really stands out in this book. This is the kind of writing one dreams of doing.
Tamaki will be hitting the road over the next few weeks to promote the book, making stops in Portland on May 1st and 2nd and New York on May 5th. SuperMutant Magic Academy written and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki and published by Drawn and Quarterly is in stores and available online today. If you buy one book this year, this is the book I’d suggest you buy.
New Releases (April 29)
Princeless: The Pirate Princess #4 (Action Lab)
SuperMutant Magic Academy (Drawn and Quarterly)
Jem and the Holograms #2 (IDW)
Bitch Planet #4 (Image)
Elektra Vol. 2 Reverence (Marvel)
Princess Leia #3 (Marvel)
Silk #3 (Marvel)
X-Men #26 (Marvel)
Welcome to Drawn to Comics! From diary comics to superheroes, from webcomics to graphic novels – this is where we’ll be taking a look at comics by, featuring and for queer ladies. So whether you love to look at detailed personal accounts of other people’s lives, explore new and creative worlds, or you just love to see hot ladies in spandex, we’ve got something for you.
If you have a comic that you’d like to see me review, you can email me at mey [at] autostraddle [dot] com